First there was space…

‘First there was space, and then there was form”

One of the most often asked questions I get is how do you design a bonsai, or what ‘rules’ do you follow when styling your bonsai. So let me start by saying that I do not think that there are any rules. One of the things that comes up a lot, is when I visit a club or society and someone in the audience pipes up with, “but the rule book say’s…..” .Yet when I ask to see it, they never have a copy of the ‘rule book’ in the club library. Strange that!

However there are guidelines that you can follow when you are a “complete novice” that will help you realise the bush in front of you into something resembling what people would recognise as a ‘bonsai’.

Its a bit like starting children off with painting by numbers. They learn how to use a brush, apply paint neatly, and hopefully get a feel for what colours go with what. However they are not actually creating a work of art, and the result is not totally of their own creation.

So following the mystical rules will help you produce (and I say produce and not create for a reason) something resembling a bonsai. However two major things happen if you follow the ‘rules’. First of all, over time your trees will strangely look very similar in shape! People who visit your garden or see your “tinternet’” forum posts, will notice that you keep creating the same silhouettes on your trees irrespective of the trunk line. In the USA they have a name for this, “cookie cutter” bonsai.

Secondly, you will never find your creativity or realise your potential for styling, because you are slavishly following “the rules” not having to think on your feet. After all, why think when the rules say do this do that……… right!

Remember, creation begins in the mind and manifests itself through our hands onto our trees.

So here are just a few things for your consideration, though they might not be in the ‘rule book’.

Proportion or balance

One of the things that novice or intermediate bonsai enthusiasts often fail to realise in their creations is that of ‘proportion’. The proportions of the bonsai you design are very important in creating a balanced form. I always say to my students/clients let the trunk size and form influence your design. Rather than inflicting some pre conceived shape on the tree irrespective of the trunk. Very often you see a tree which says ‘sumo wrestler’, powerful, squat, massive and it’s dressed up as a ballerina. Or vice versa. A nice elegant trunk with a top so heavy it would be better on a trunk 4 times the thickness.

Your tree must have balance to look visually stable. This is achieved by having an equal visual weight either side of the vertical axis, the centre of gravity. All designs are measured against this central axis or centre of gravity because balance is related to the force of gravity.

In asymmetric designs we achieve balance by equalising or balancing the visual weight of the foliage around the core of our design, the trunk. Remember, visual weight is not actual weight!

Good proportion is about relating your foliage pads to each other to create a whole image with space (see below) to punctuate it. Just as when we speak we punctuate it with a pause. Think of space as a ‘visual pause’.

Your tree should have depth to the front and to the rear. With the greater emphasis to the rear. Look at your tree from either the left or right side to check.

(Now for a Tolley ism).

If the proportion is correct, think “climb up the front and ski down the back”.

I wonder how long it will be before people are using that!


Space or spaces are important in any tree form to punctuate the design. Space can be something as simple as the spaces between branches and the ground (pot rim) which infer height or lack of it. People talk of ‘negative space’ a lot, but how many understand the importance of space. Particularly ‘held space’.

Without space, we can only admire the trees outline which is totally pointless as we are rendering it like a photo, 2 dimensional. Bonsai, like sculpture is 3 dimensional. Height, width and depth. Right! But in reality it is unique. It is 4 dimensional. The fourth dimension is life. The tree is a living sculpture. Therefore life over time = Change! Our works of art are never finished and always evolving.

Hence Steve Tolley Bonsai – Four Dimensional Art!


Consistency in texture is important both from an aesthetic point and a horticultural point in a tree. Texture can refer to mud painting on a pot. Craggy bark on a pine or ancient driftwood on a juniper. In these cases we must acknowledge the presence of texture and tailor our composition so that things are harmonious. Texture can also refer to foliage. Some foliage like Needle Juniper, Juniperus rigida, is coarse. Itoigawa Juniper is finer. Foliage texture can influence for instance, the texture of the pot for this tree.

Textures in the foliage need to be the same. We do not want a disparity in the texture. i.e. Dense foliage and sparse foliage within the same tree. Otherwise we have two problems. Visually the tree is not consistent because it has different textures within the foliage. Horticulturally it means our tree has weaker and stronger growing areas within it which does not equate to balanced distribution of energy.


Any line through a design is one dimensional. A strong line can lead the eye too quickly through the design. For example a strong shari. A diagonal line can lead the eye out of the design (a strong ten jin for example) or hanging/plunging foliage pads can send the eye plunging to the ground. Float your pads for harmonious design. Look at how many designs have plunging pads!

Within the context of Line, we can add Rhythm. In bonsai this denotes movement. A dominant line running through the tree will pull the eye and give life to the design. Rather than a static image. In a trunk the line should taper from the ground to the top.

Hopefully I have given you a few points to consider.


Recently I worked on several junipers from the nursery for clients. Some were Juniperus chinensis imported from Japan and some were Sabina Junipers collected in Spain.

I have to say these amazing Sabina’s are continuing to give wonderful results. There promises to be some stunning trees on display in the future as these ‘babies’ mature.

The one here (below) I did for John Eaton, who last year was the first to sign up and participate in the BONSAI IN DEPTH course. He has been really busy with his business and asked me to finish the tree he had prepared himself for styling.


In the ‘Before’ image (before John cleaned up the tree), the first branch on the left can be seen rising up and the foliage on that branch mingles with the foliage at the top of the juniper. It has a spine of deadwood running its full length which means bending it into a new shape or position is not so straight forward. However I wanted to keep that branch for two reasons.

First of all as can be seen in the ‘After’ photo, having that branch as the character branch reinforces the direction or flow of the tree while also adding more visual interest to the composition. Secondly, keeping it as part of my design also means I keep the live vein that is feeding it, therefore maintaining the multiple live veins it finally displays. The interplay of live veins and deadwood is one of the things that exemplifies ancient junipers.

To make manipulating the branch easier I removed a section of the deadwood spine at the point I  wanted to bend it but leaving in the start of the deadwood and the end section.

In the ‘Before’ image you can just make out a few live branches top right surrounded by a lot of jin. It would have been easy to have opted to make the whole area jin and removed the last few live areas of green. In fact a visitor to the nursery while I was in the process of styling this juniper said that he thought I should make the whole area deadwood, which would then give “loads of interesting deadwood” to the bottom right corner of the crown. However if you look at the ‘After’ image, you can see I have simply pulled the branch across to integrate the foliage with the bigger mass next to it. Again keeping alive the live vein. This one sinuously runs up the right side of the juniper and would be a loss to the final design image of the juniper.

It is easy to simply hang a preconceived asymmetrical triangle on a tree, irrespective of what the consequences are for the tree. (Painting by numbers). But the aim should be to produce an image that makes the ‘best’ use of the material in front of you. There are already too many formulaic tree images around. When you style a tree, if you are true to yourself, then you are true to the tree!


International “Joy through Bonsai” programme

As part of my mission to bring you THE best in bonsai, in 2015 we are starting an exciting international teaching programme here at the nursery. It is designed to open up to all those who want to learn and progress, the chance to learn from some of the worlds best in bonsai. Directly, to give individuals the highest levels of guidance and experience, while indirectly raising the standards of bonsai around the world.

We will be hosting some of the worlds best bonsai artists/masters and experts in other related fields such as suiseki and display. This is not a one off affair for 2015. This is an ongoing annual programme that will see THE best coming here to help YOU develop your skills and understanding.

I will be launching my International “Joy through Bonsai” programme starting in 2015.

Our programme kicks off in April when we will be hosting Japanese bonsai master Taiga Urishibata from the famous Taisho – En nursery.

Son of Nobuichi Urishibata and student of Masahiko Kimura.

 taiga1 taiga2

This is your chance to learn with one of Japans great young ‘stars’. Be one of the first to work with this great bonsai master.

It promises to be a special time!

Contact me for details if you are a serious bonsai lover with a desire to further your knowledge and skills.

Stay tuned as we announce other bonsai talents who will be coming to Steve Tolley Bonsai studio in the future.


Winter sale 2014

It’s a little later than usual this year, but its here now!

Our winter sale starts Monday 8th December and finishes Sunday 21st December

20% off all Japanese imported trees!